Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances (SFP) hosted the return of violinist Alina Ibragimova and pianist Cédric Tiberghien for their second recital as a duo. The first had taken place in 2014 after Ibragimova had made her solo debut with SFP in 2012. However, unlike their 2014 appearance, last night was not entirely a “duo recital,” since both musicians gave solo performances, Tiberghien in the first half and Ibragimova following the intermission.
What was similar to 2014 was that the “core” of the program drew upon repertoire from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, the opening selection by Johann Sebastian Bach (the BWV 1017 sonata for violin and keyboard in C minor) was “separated” from Johannes Brahms’ Opus 100 (second) violin sonata by twentieth-century music. Tiberghien’s solo selection was Alban Berg’s Opus 1 piano sonata. Similarly, Brahms’ sonata was “separated” from Robert Schumann’s Opus 121 (also second) sonata in D minor by the fifth (in G major) of Eugène Ysaÿe’s Opus 27 collection of six solo violin sonatas, composed in 1924, over ten years after the Berg sonata received its first public performance.
This was more than mere “back and forth” programming. The arrangement of selections provided an excellent framework in which the attentive listener could consider not only the features that distinguished music from different times but also certain fundamental tenets of music-making that united them. This was clear from the outset with Tiberghien’s scrupulous commitment to the clarity of the distinct contrapuntal voices that constitute the keyboard part for BWV 1017. Indeed, all four movements of this sonata may be taken as three-part inventions (written on a longer durational scale than the ones Bach composed for the education of his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann), with the violin supplying the third part.
While it is hard to ignore Berg’s lush approach to harmony in his sonata, there is a tendency for the unconventionality of his chords to distract from the fact that lines of counterpoint are as significant in that Opus 1 as they are in BWV 1017. Thus, Tiberghien’s dexterity and sensitivity, which brought expressiveness to his “two-thirds” of Bach’s inventions, served him equally well in presenting both the syntactic clarity and the intense rhetoric of Berg’s sonata. Indeed, his approach to Berg as a distant extrapolation of Bach served Tiberghien equally well when he dropped back into the nineteenth century to accompany Ibragimova’s reading for the Brahms sonata.
There may also be an interesting connection to Antonín Dvořák in the Opus 100 sonata, which Brahms’ composed in the summer of 1886. Brahms first became aware of Dvořák as a member of the jury for the Austrian State Prize for Composition. After Dvořák had won this competition three times (1874, 1876, and 1877), Brahms recommended him to his publisher Simrock, whose first publication of Dvořák’s music was the Opus 46 set of Slavonic dances. The second of those dances was a dumka, and it is hard to avoid thinking about that form’s alternation between emotional extremes while listening to the second movement of Brahms’ Opus 100, even if there is no suggestion of Czech “folk style” in Brahms’ sonata.
Ysaÿe’s sonata, on the other hand, is all about virtuosity. Counterpoint still signifies, but this is a matter of the soloist providing a convincing account of Ysaÿe’s ability to establish the effect of multiple voices coming from a single violin. Each of the sonatas was written for one of his contemporaries; but the dedicatee of Ibragimova’s selection, the fifth sonata, is virtually unknown today, Mathieu Crickboom. (His IMSLP Web page has a listing only for his Opus 11 violin sonata, suggesting that he had at least ten other compositions to his name!)
While it consists of only two movements, this sonata is the most programmatic of the set. Its first movement depicts the dawn, while the second is a rustic dance. The challenge to the performer is to capture these denotations while doing justice to all of the technical demands that Ysaÿe has composed to paint his landscapes (physical and social), so to speak. Ibragimova’s technique was definitely up to the challenge; and those fortunate enough to listen to the Danish National Symphony Orchestra on Sunday evening may well have enjoyed “comparing and contrasting” Ysaÿe’s version of the dawn with the more Wagnerian rhetoric of Carl Nielsen’s Opus 17 (“Helios”) overture. In the second movement Ibragimova was not shy in deploying an aggressive rhetoric to depict the flat-footed qualities of “rustic” dancing.
The program concluded with Schumann’s Opus 121 sonata, which does not get very much exposure. Some would say this is just as well, but it was composed in 1851 during that period of productivity that preceded the beginning of the composer’s mental breakdown. There is also a curious bit of retrospection during the second “very lively” (Sehr lebhaft) movement with the appearance of “Herr Gott Dich Loben Wir” (we praise Thee, Lord God), which roars out during the Finale movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 66 (second) piano trio in C minor. The program notes by Eric Bromberger call out the citation of the hymn “Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ” (praised be Thou, Jesus Christ) in the following movement; but it would be reasonable to assume that Schumann enjoyed the opportunity to poke Mendelssohn gently in the ribs. Indeed, Opus 121 was dedicated to Ferdinand David, the violinist for whom Mendelssohn wrote his Opus 64 violin concerto in E minor. However, if, in spite of this rich social context, the overall rhetoric of Schumann’s sonata tends to be opaque, Ibragimova and Tiberghien definitely did their best to clarify matters for last night’s attentive listeners.
Far more accessible Schumann was provided as an encore. This was the “Abendlied” (evening song), the last of the Opus 85 set of twelve Klavierstücke für kleine und große Kinder (piano pieces for little and big children). This was originally composed for four hands on a single piano keyboard, but it has been arranged several times. (Steven Isserlis usually plays the arrangement by Schumann’s contemporary, Joseph Joachim; and IMSLP cites an arrangement by a later Schumann contemporary, Friedrich Grützmacher. On the other hand Grützmacher was also responsible for an arrangement of Luigi Boccherini’s B-flat major cello concerto, which has now been dismissed as a distorted nineteenth-century conception of eighteenth-century music; so my personal sympathies would probably be with Joachim!)